When the St. Joseph Lead Co. finished work on its 350-foot smoke stack in 1892, the mining company’s pact with tiny Herculaneum, Missouri, was sealed. The town would enjoy more than a century of good-paying jobs while the plant belched sulfur-laced emissions.
Three decades after discovering the town’s blessing was life-threatening, its toxic partnership ends next week when the largest and last lead smelter in the U.S. shuts down.
The Dec. 31 closing of the smelter on the west bank of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis, marks the end of an era in a region that has supplied most of the nation’s lead since the 1700s. Almost always, the roads and rails from the mines in southeast Missouri’s lead belt ran to Herculaneum.
“Never thought it would go away,” said Herculaneum Mayor Bill Haggard, nodding toward the smelter whose stack is now 550 feet tall, about the height of the Washington Monument.
While lead mining continues in Missouri, the halt of smelting echoes the economics that contributed to the decline of high-sulfur coal excavation in the Midwest.
“This is part and parcel of the de-industrialization of America,” said Eric Clements, a Missouri State University history professor who specializes in mining. “There comes a point where economically you can’t do it anymore.”
St. Louis-based Doe Run Co., the world’s third-largest producer of lead from mines, said it will stop smelting operations as part of a $65 million agreement with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Missouri. The company has operated the facility since 1986.
Doe Run said the estimated $100 million cost to build a new facility and meet air-quality standards was too risky.
“We saw no alternative to closing our plant,” Gary Hughes, general manager of Doe Run’s Metals Division, said in a Dec. 14 statement.
The smelter’s announced closing provoked a furor on some conservative Web publications. Newsmax.com reported Dec. 11 that “EPA Rules Force Closure of Last Ammo Maker.” Thetrumpet.com lamented on Nov. 14 that the U.S. “may become dependent on foreign nations for its small-arms ammunition supply chain.”
Eighty percent of the lead processed at the Herculaneum smelter goes toward battery production, the company said. The smelter doesn’t currently supply bullet manufacturers, a spokeswoman said.
Ammunition accounts for about 3 percent of the end use of all lead processed worldwide, according to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group, with batteries representing four-fifths.
Doe Run said it will export more semi-processed ore after the closing of the smelter, using facilities in other countries, including Canada and Mexico.
“Mining is a very mature industry, especially in North America,” said KC Chang, senior economist at IHS Inc., a global research company based in Englewood, Colorado. “This is a case where the mining industry is taking a proper accounting of the economics of the situation. It’s just not worth it.”
The Herculaneum smelter closing reflects the decline of mining activity in Missouri during the past 100 years. This is the region that country music legend Ferlin Husky sang about in “Flat River, Mo,” and it’s where the sprawling mine built by the Federal Lead Co. in 1906 closed in 1972.
About 35 miles south of Herculaneum, the mine is an industrial ruin, a collection of metal buildings that seem to be held together by rust. It hosts the Missouri Mines State Historic Site, a state-run museum that chronicles the history of lead mining.
“There’s an enormous lead deposit here, only a couple like it in the world,” said Art Hebrank, the site administrator.
While there were five major companies mining for lead in the 20th century, only Doe Run remains today, Hebrank said.
Chang said he doesn’t expect the closing of the smelter to have an effect on commodity prices. The impact on Herculaneum is another matter.
The town of almost 3,500 grew up around the smelter and has feasted on, as well as suffered from, the results. Herculaneum’s smelter is officially a Superfund site, a federal designation for a hazardous waste site -- in this case, from lead contamination. Doe Run has bought about 150 homes closest to the smelter, where high lead levels were first detected in the soil in 1982.
Herculaneum, often referred to as Herky, was founded in 1808. Its street names are functional: Cross, Curved, Short, Long, Broad, High -- and School, where Haggard, the mayor, lived as a child.
“Back then, we never gave any thought to what was coming out of the stack,” said Haggard, 62, who was raised about 100 yards from the plant. A slag pile at the end of the street was used for sledding during the winter.
“We’d be outside playing and the smoke would get so thick that we’d have to go inside,” he said. “But we’d go back out.”
Haggard has long stopped noticing the constant hum and whir from the plant processing lead. In these days leading to the smelter closing, though, he has been struck by the absence of another sound: The rumble of trucks hauling it away.